Although not as prominent a sexual problem as it once was, failure to achieve orgasm continues to be
a major complaint of many women. . . . the manner, method, and ease of orgasmic attainment has
received wide publicity, and the woman who does not regularly achieve orgasm feels deficient, deprived,
and often depressed.
Lieblum and Rosen, 19891
Why are orgasm troubles in women considered separately from phenomena
that are known by the same name in men? Is there a difference
between the two? When considering only the subjective sensation of
an orgasm, probably not. Masters & Johnson,2 Kaplan,3 and DSM-IV4
do not separate men and women. Perhaps even more tellingly, in a
study of written descriptions of orgasms obtained from 24 men and 24
women, pronouns were deleted and the accounts given to 70 health
professionals who were “blinded” men and women.5 The latter were
unable to distinguish the descriptions on the basis of gender.
What about the equivalency of orgasm and the word “sex?” For
many, the answer is that they are not the same. A patient may be better
served if a clinician goes beyond a consideration of orgasms only and
thinks also about sexual satisfaction.6 Clinical experience suggests that
the meaning of orgasm to men and women is not always the same.
Men tend to focus attention on their own and their partner’s orgasms.
Many women also put great weight on the intimacy and closeness that
accompanies a sexual experience.
A 27-year-old single woman was concerned about never having an orgasm. Since
her late teens, sexual experiences were a regular and satisfying part of three longterm
and several brief relationships with men. Despite her usual high level of
sexual desire and arousal and the absence of discomfort with intercourse, as well
as her obvious pleasure with sexual activity, partners often wondered why she was
not experiencing orgasm. They questioned if they were somehow not “doing
something right” and generally gave the impression that she was missing out on
a universal and gratifying sexual experience. She wondered if something was
wrong with her sexual response. She felt that her partners must be knowledgeable
about such issues, since they had the wherewithal to compare her to other women
with whom they had had sexual experiences (one was actually explicit in saying
so). Over the years, she read books and articles in women’s magazines suggesting
masturbation as a way of learning to become orgasmic but many attempts at selfstimulation
proved unsuccessful. Psychotherapy was directed at focusing on her
sexual pleasure rather than whether or not she experienced an orgasm. She was
still not orgasmic one year later but the level of arousal that she experienced with
sexual activity had markedly increased. She described herself as much more sexually
Clinical experience suggests that the
meaning of orgasm to men and women
is not always the same. Men tend to
focus attention on their own and their
partner’s orgasm. Many women also
put great weight on the intimacy and
closeness that accompanies a sexual
In a study of written descriptions of
orgasms obtained from 24 men and 24
women, pronouns were deleted and the
accounts given to 70 health professionals
who were “blinded” men and
women.5 The latter were unable to distinguish
the descriptions on the basis of
“Climax” is often used as a synonym for orgasm. On a colloquial level, the word “come”
has become the verbal equivalent of orgasm (for women and men), and some women
use the more euphemistic words “peak” or “satisfaction.”
Orgasm in a man is not difficult to detect, since it is usually accompanied by ejaculation.
The process is more subjective in women, although Masters and Johnson2 (pp.
128-137) described psychophysiological and measurable phenomena associated with
female orgasm such as vaginal contractions. They also described (p.5) three patterns in
the sexual response cycle experienced by women. While two patterns reached the
level of orgasm, one (designated pattern “B” [see Figure 3-2 in Chapter 3]), reached
sustained plateau level response without orgasm apparently occurring. Since their first
book, Human Sexual Response, described “normal” sexual anatomy and physiology, the
implication was thus left that the three patterns of female sexual response were all
“normal” and so, too, was a high level of female sexual response without orgasm.
Unfortunately, there was no commentary accompanying the description of pattern “B”
so the frequency (as well as associated changes in physiology, thoughts, and feelings)
of these women remains a mystery.
Female Orgasmic Disorder is defined in DSM-IV-PC7 (p. 117) in the same terminology
as for the male: “Persistent or recurrent delay in, or absence of, orgasm following a
normal sexual excitement phase. This can be present in all situations, or only in specific
settings, and causes marked distress or interpersonal difficulty. This diagnosis is
not appropriate if the difficulty in reaching orgasm is due to sexual stimulation that is
not adequate in focus, intensity, and duration.” Additional clinical information is provided:
“In diagnosing Orgasmic Disorder, the clinician should also take into account
the person’s age and sexual experience. Once a female learns how to reach orgasm, it
is uncommon for her to lose that capacity, unless poor sexual communication, relationship
conflict, a traumatic experience (e.g., rape), a Mood Disorder, or a general medical
condition intervenes. . . .”
Two common clinical presentations of orgasmic dysfunction in women are: (1) lifelong
and generalized (also called primary, pre-orgasmia, anorgasmia, and lifelong
global) and (2) lifelong and situational (also called situational and secondary). (The
term secondary can also refer to women who not only experience orgasm through masturbation
but who do not experience orgasm “through any type of partner stimulation
[and] who define their limited repertoire of stimulation techniques leading to orgasm
as problematic”).8 A third form of orgasmic dysfunction is that which is acquired and
Clinicians commonly hear a concern from a woman that she is experiencing orgasm
with masturbation (perhaps easily, and either alone or with partner touch) but not during
penile-vaginal intercourse. Masters and Johnson viewed the absence of orgasm
specifically during penile-vaginal intercourse (while present otherwise), to be a disorder
requiring treatment9 (pp. 240-241). Many women objected to this idea, since it
seemed to echo a previously held idea that orgasms experienced apart from intercourse
were considered “immature” in contrast to the “mature” orgasms with intercourse. The
accumulation of epidemiological information about patterns of orgasmic response in
women suggests that orgasm during intercourse is not universal. In fact, one survey
found that the majority of respondents in partner-related sexual activity usually came to
orgasm outside of penile-vaginal intercourse.10 This new information resulted in a
change in the view of health professionals treating women with orgasm concerns to
one of thinking that this pattern may not represent pathology but “may constitute a
normal variation of female sexuality” 3 (p. 398).
The assessment of orgasmic dysfunction in women is outlined in Figure 12-1.
In the past, many women who reported a lifelong and generalized history of orgasmic
dysfunction were considered to be otherwise physically and psychologically
healthy. A woman with lifelong and generalized orgasm would describe the following
1. Unlike other women she knew, she never had an orgasm
2. She enjoyed sexual experiences with a partner for the closeness but never felt
much sexual enjoyment
3. She never tried masturbation
4. She read little or nothing about sex and orgasm
5. She talked to virtually no one about these subjects
Today, women who are concerned about the absence of orgasm often report:
1. A high level of sexual response when with a partner and feeling close to “something”
2. Having read about sexual matters and orgasm
3. Talking to partners about orgasm
4. Having “tried” to masturbate but finding that it “didn’t work” (and possibly also
used a “toy” such as a vibrator)
Reports of masturbation attempts in the past require more detailed questioning, since
they vary from meager (a few opportunities for brief periods) to considerable (many
times involving great effort and lengthy duration).
A recently married 26-year-old woman talked to her family doctor about her sexual
response. Specifically, she said that while she generally enjoyed sexual experiences
with men, she never had an orgasm by any means whatsoever. She read in books
and women’s magazines about masturbation as a way of experiencing orgasm, little
reservation about this approach, and tried it but found it to be sexually frustrating.
When asked how many times she tried and for how long, she related that she tried
about six times during a two-month period about two years before, and for about
five minutes on each occasion. She stopped trying when she experienced little
change in her sexual feelings. She also reported that when male sexual partners
stimulated her clitoris, she generally found this irritating and eventually asked them
The patient’s doctor used the opportunity of her periodic pelvic examination
and pap smear to explain aspects of female genital anatomy and physiology, about
which the patient was not well informed. This was done during the examination
by placing the patient in a semi-reclining position while she held a mirror that
reflected her genitalia, so that she could more easily understand the doctor’s
After the examination, the patient was encouraged to buy and read a self-help
book about women and orgasm and to masturbate at home several times each
week for a much longer period of time (at least 15 to 30 minutes) before she
stopped. When she returned as scheduled three weeks later, the patient reported
• That she purchased and read the recommended book
• That she experimented with self-stimulation as suggested
• That she experienced a high level of arousal in the process
She was encouraged to continue, and to direct her husband in stimulating her
as she might do when alone. Three weeks after that visit, she reported having
orgasms regularly when alone since shortly after the previous visit. She also
described being less shy with her husband, more candid in her directions, and
reaching a much higher level of arousal with him. She was confident that orgasm
during sexual activity with her husband would eventually occur.
Women who are situationally nonorgasmic on a lifelong basis usually report that with
masturbation they have no difficulty coming to orgasm. (Some may, alternatively,
describe infrequent orgasms with a partner.) Some may be orgasmic with partnerrelated
sexual practices other than intercourse and, in general, describe sexual experiences
as quite pleasurable. A lack of orgasm usually extends over a lifetime of sexual
encounters for the woman (although it is not unusual to hear that orgasm during intercourse
occurred once or a few times in the past). Sometimes this pattern of response is
presented as a sexual concern. With greater depth of questioning, the woman often
says that orgasms with intercourse would be her preference if they could easily happen.
However, she states that she feels quite satisfied if she can come to orgasm in
some form or another when with her partner, (e.g., with oral stimulation) and that the
notion that this must occur specifically with intercourse derives more from the wishes
of her partner rather than herself.
In the acquired and generalized form, the woman reports the recent loss of the ability
to come to orgasm by any means whatsoever with a partner or when alone, or alternatively,
a recent change in her sexual response pattern such that orgasm occurs only
after an unusually lengthy process.
A 39-year-old woman was seen because she recently became nonorgasmic. She was
in a harmonious lesbian relationship for the past 10 years. The quantity of sexual
activity was considerably greater initially but diminished over the years, largely
because of a discrepancy in sexual desire between the two (the patient’s partner was
less interested). Sexual events were qualitatively uncomplicated. In the past, both
were easily orgasmic and the patient masturbated to orgasm several times each
week (an experience that she highly valued) between sexual times with her partner.
She (the patient) had mild episodes of depression in the past that were treated with
psychotherapy. However, more recently, she had a more severe episode and she
accepted the inclusion of antidepressant medication (an SSRI) in her treatment.
Within a week, she noticed that coming to orgasm with masturbation was becoming
more difficult, and shortly after she found that achieving orgasm became
impossible by any means (despite continued desire and a high level of arousal).
Even though she felt improvement in her mood, the medication was changed
because of the sexual side effect. When she became orgasmic once again, however,
her symptoms of depression worsened. It proved difficult to find a medication that
was effective in treating her mood problems without also causing a loss of orgasm.
The benefit of the antidepressant was so substantial that she chose abandoning her
orgasms for what she expected to be a limited period of time.
In response to a question in the Laumann et al. study (“In the last 12
months, has there ever been a period of several months or more when
you were unable to come to a climax?”) 24% of women respondents said
“yes”.11 This was the second most common sexual dysfunction reported
by women (the first was “lacked interest in sex”). Orgasm difficulties in
women were more often associated (p. 371) with the following:
1. Less education (30% of those who had “less than HS”)
2. Low income (27% of those who were “poor”)
3. Impaired health (33% of those who were in “fair” health)
4. Personal unhappiness (40% of those who were “unhappy most
5. Younger age (less than 40 years old)
6. Marital status (highest [29%] in divorced women)
7. Race (highest [29%] in black women)
8. Religion (highest [29%] in women who reported “none”)
Information on subclassification can be gained from a review of community based
research on the epidemiology of orgasmic dysfunction in women.12 Various studies
show that 5% to 20% of women have never, or infrequently, experienced orgasm. In
the language of DSM-IV-PC, such women would be classified as having the lifelong
In response to a question in the Laumann
et al, study (“In the last 12
months, has there ever been a period of
several months or more when you were
unable to come to a climax?”) 24% of
women respondents said “yes”.11 This
was the second most common sexual
dysfunction reported by women.
and generalized form of orgasmic dysfunction.7 There is inadequate data on the frequency
of the situational, and acquired and generalized forms.
In a review of the frequency of orgasmic problems in women as the presenting
problem in sex therapy clinics, there was a reported range in several studies from 18 to
76%13 (p. 42). Variations probably relate to the year the particular study was conducted
(several are from the 1970s and early 1980s) and the focus of the clinic from
which the particular report emerged.
Most of the comments about the etiology of orgasmic dysfunction in women are
general and have not been made in relation to any particular subtype. After reviewing
the literature on physiological, sociological, psychological and interpersonal, and cultural
factors that might influence orgasm in women, Morokoff concluded that
“. . . one association is clearly uncontested: Birth later in the century is related to
higher frequency of orgasm14 (p. 156). Whatever cultural changes in attitude toward
female sexuality are at work, it seems possible that women who are better educated,
have higher social standing, and/or do not have rigid religious morals have been
more easily influenced.”
Gebhardt related the experience of orgasm to the extent of happiness of a woman
in her relationship. He found that a certain group of women (35% to 41%) reached
“coital orgasm” regardless of the degree of contentment.15 Since the percentage was
appreciably higher (59%) in women from “very happy” marriages, he concluded that
there were also women who were quite sensitive to the state of their relationship and
who would not experience orgasm unless the quality of this alliance was at a high
While the importance of psychological issues in the possible causes of orgasmic
dysfunction remain unclear from a research perspective, they are difficult to ignore
A 27-year-old woman, recently separated after a five year marriage, was referred
because of never having been orgasmic. In her previous sexual encounters, she was
usually interested, had no difficulty becoming vaginally wet, and did not experience
pain with attempts at intercourse. She described many of the physiological
phenomena associated with a high level of arousal and felt herself “close,” at which
point “something would happen.” Her arousal level and her feeling of sexual desire
would drop precipitously. The same pattern existed with other partners before her
marriage, as well as with masturbation.
She wondered about sexual abuse during her childhood but had no memory of
any such experience. However, she also described a family-of-origin where her
father was uncommunicative, unaffectionate, and critical. As an adult, she found
relationships with men difficult, particularly in the areas of trust and control. She
felt that her distrusting attitude toward men derived directly from her family and,
moreover, was underlined by her discovery of a relationship between her husband
and another woman.
After one year of psychotherapy, she had a better understanding of the origins
of her attitudes toward men and how they shaped her life in the present. She also
felt more sexually responsive for longer periods than had been the case in the past,
although to her chagrin, she remained nonorgasmic. However, she was optimistic
that this situation might change.
Orgasmic dysfunction that is acquired and generalized can result from various medications,
illnesses, and abused substances. However, as compared to
impaired ejaculation/orgasm in men, there seems to be considerably
less specific information in the literature on the effects of these phenomena
on orgasm in women (see “Delayed Ejaculation/Orgasm” in
Chapter 10). Segraves comments that women may be less likely to
report orgasmic difficulty than men, since they often are more prepared
to attribute the problem to an interpersonal conflict than a biological
explanation.16 Although his statement was made in relation to
antidepressant medications, it is equally valid in other situations as well, and hence it
is necessary to ask specific questions when determining the presence of side effects.
Some medications used in psychiatry, to control high blood pressure and other ailments
seen in medical practice have a particular predilection for interfering with the
orgasm part of the sex response cycle (see Appendix III).17 Psychiatric drugs that have
a specific effect on orgasm in women have been reviewed.16,18,19 Antidepressants (tricyclics,
MAOIs, and SSRIs), antipsychotics (some phenothiazines), and antianxiety
drugs (some benzodiazepines) are reported as causing anorgasmia in women. In a
recent (1997), comprehensive, and family-practice-oriented report on the sexual side
effects of medications, Finger and his colleagues provided information on all such
effects (not only those related to one part of the sex response cycle), specified the
nature of the problems encountered, commented on their relative frequency, and
included gender-specific observations (see Appendix III).20 Some of their notations are
relevant to the issue of orgasmic dysfunction in women.
Some medical disorders result in symptoms that affect orgasmic response for men
and women. Specific observations on diabetes21 and multiple sclerosis (MS) in women22
are reported. One study on sexual problems in women with MS refers to “difficulties”
in achieving orgasm. The authors of another study23 on the same subject found that
when a patient had genital sensory disturbance, the kind of sexual practice that
occurred became significant when considering whether or not the patient came to
orgasm. Three sexual practices were described:
• Intercourse, least effective
• Oral stimulation, intermediate
• Manual stimulation, most effective
Studies of the effects on alcohol use on sexual expression in women are confusing.
In a study of the effects of acute intoxication on a group of 18 university women subjects,
24 alcohol was shown to result in a progressively greater depressant effect on
Women may be less likely to report
orgasmic difficulty than men, since they
often are more prepared to attribute the
problem to an interpersonal conflict
than a biological one.16
orgasmic response as blood levels increased. Specifically, alcohol was associated with
longer latency to orgasm and diminished intensity of the feeling but, paradoxically,
greater sexual arousal and pleasure associated with orgasm.
In an attempt to obtain more information on the effects of alcohol on the sexual
activity of nonalcoholic women, a prospective study involving daily logs of alcohol
intake and sexual activity was conducted on 69 subjects.25 Three groups were
• No alcohol
• Moderate intake
• Heavy consumption
The only significant finding was that female-initiated sexual activity occurred twice as
often without alcohol (versus with alcohol). No significant effects were found on sexual
arousal, pleasure, or orgasm. These findings indicate errors in retrospective accounts
on the stimulative effects of alcohol use on sexual expression in women.
History-taking provides core information. Issues to inquire about and questions to ask
1. Duration (see Chapter 4, “lifelong versus acquired”)
Suggested Question: “How long has this (not coming to orgasm)
been a concern to you?”
(Comment: asking about a non-experience is admittedly rather awkward).
2. Partner-related sexual experiences other than intercourse (see Chapter 4, “generalized
Suggested Question: “Does your husband (partner) touch your
genital area with his fingers or his mouth during love making
(or sexual) times together?”
Additional Question: “Have you ever come to orgasm that way?”
3. Masturbation experience (see Chapter 4, “generalized versus situational”)
Suggested Question: “Have you had experience with stimulating
yourself or masturbating?”
Additional Question if the Answer is Yes: “Have you ever come to orgasm
with self-stimulation or masturbation?”
Additional Question: “Have you ever used a vibrator?”
Additional Question if the Answer is Yes: “Did you come to orgasm when
4. Level of arousal (see Chapter 4, “description”)
Suggested Question to a Woman who has not Experienced an Orgasm: “If your
compare your sexual excitement to climbing a mountain
and orgasm is the peak, what height do you achieve when
the two of you make love?”
Additional Question if Husband (or partner) Touches Woman with Hands or Mouth:
“What about when your husband (Partner) touches you
with his hands or mouth?”
Additional Question if the Patient has Experience with Masturbation or Use of a Vibrator:
“WHAT ABOUT WHEN YOU WERE MASTURBATING (OR USING A
Additional Question if Woman has been Orgasmic: “Could you describe
what an orgasm feels like physically?” “Psychologically?”
5. Psychological accompaniment (see Chapter 4, “patient and partner’s reaction to
Suggested Question: “What are you thinking about when you hope
for an orgasm and it doesn’t occur?”
Additional Suggested Question: “What does your husband (partner)
say at such times?”
The physical examination is usually unproductive diagnostically in an apparently
healthy woman but can be important when conducted for educational purposes.
No specific laboratory examinations appear useful in an apparently healthy woman.
“Directed Masturbation” is the preferred treatment method and, in principle, involves
education, self-exploration and body awareness, and encouraging the patient to masturbate
to first experience an orgasm by herself before expecting it to happen when
sexually active with a partner.26 The objective of this approach is for the woman to
initially become comfortable with the experience of orgasm when alone, with the hope
that she will subsequently feel equally comfortable when experiencing an orgasm during
partner-related sexual activities such as intercourse or oral stimulation. Alternatively,
or in addition, she could teach her partner to stimulate her in the same manner
as she learned to stimulate herself. Several studies have show this approach to be beneficial
and even superior to other treatment procedures.27,28
Orgasm initially experienced through masturbation was helpful to a great many
middle-class women in the 1970s and 1980s who were born in North America and
continues to be widely used as a treatment procedure. However, since the “sexual
revolution” in the 1970s, the availability of books on the sexuality of women, sexual
information in women’s magazines, and the appearance and discussion of explicit sexual
issues in movies, videos, and the Internet have provided women (and men) with a
substantial amount of sexual information. The resulting change in self-acceptance and
self-awareness has greatly affected all aspects of the sexuality of women including
knowledge about body function generally and orgasm specifically. As a consequence,
most adult women are better informed about their body function in a sexual sense than
their counterparts in the 1970s and early 1980s. However, patients who have sexual
concerns sometimes avoid reading the information available and may need encouragement
to do so. Primary care clinicians are in a particularly advantageous position to
provide such assistance. Provision of information and encouragement might be especially
valuable to certain groups of women such as teens and adults who immigrated to
North America from countries where gender roles are rigid and women are clearly
subservient to men (especially in relation to sexual practices).
When supplying information and promoting the directed masturbation
approach, one method is to proceed step-by-step through the process
of learning to masturbate to the point of orgasm. If the major
etiological factors are, indeed, lack of sexual knowledge and experience,
the number of visits required and the extent of health professional
involvement may be minimal and therefore easily within the
pattern of practice in primary care. A less time-consuming approach is
to suggest to the patient that she read and use one of the readily available
self-help soft-cover books describing women’s sexual response in
general10 and masturbation techniques in particular.29,30 In a study that
has particular applicability to primary care, a 15-session treatment program
was compared to a four-visit program.31 Both were found to be
equally effective in helping the woman come to orgasm with masturbation,
and the authors concluded that “ . . . therapist contact time can be reduced
without loss of effectiveness” and that lifelong and generalized orgasmic dysfunction
can be viewed as a “skill deficit.” One of the self-help books29 also has an accompanying
videotape that many women find useful (available through Focus International,
Many women are currently knowledgeable about some sexual aspects of female
body function. However, many are unaware of and curious about the details of female
genital anatomy (understandably, because the vulva is ordinarily hidden from view and
comparisons between girls are therefore not made in earlier developmental years, as
often happens with boys in school shower rooms). Many women thus welcome the
In a study that has particular applicability
to primary care, a 15-session treatment
program was compared to a fourvisit
program.31 Both were equally
effective in helping the woman come to
orgasm with masturbation, and the
authors concluded that . . . “therapist
contact time can be reduced without loss
of effectiveness” and that lifelong and
generalized orgasmic dysfunction can be
viewed as a “skill deficit.”
reassuring opportunity to compare themselves anatomically to others through the use
of a self-help book with color photographs showing the panorama of vulvar shapes.32
Vibrators, fantasy, and Kegel’s exercises have been suggested as adjuncts to directed
masturbation, particularly when ordinary techniques do not achieve the objective of
the woman coming to orgasm. On the basis of clinical experience, use of a vibrator can
be helpful, since the intensity of the stimulation can not be matched by other methods.
Some professionals are concerned about the development of dependency on a
vibrator3 (pp. 388-389); others are not28. Vibrators are easily available at pharmacies,
department stores, and “sex” shops. No single type is judged superior. Information
about vibrators is available in a specific self-help book on this subject.33 Physicians can
arrange for vibrators to be “dispensed” by a specific pharmacy to minimize patient
Books and films that encourage the use of erotic fantasy during sexual activity may
also be useful as an adjunct. In a study of “reasonably normal married women,” the
occurrence of sexual fantasy during intercourse was found to be common and one
conclusion derived was that it “could be used adaptively to enhance sexual interest”.34
In another study, women with a sexual desire disorder were found to have significantly
fewer sexual fantasies than controls who described a “satisfactory sexual adjustment”.35
From these and other investigations, it is thought that women with desire disorders
and other sexual dysfunctions might derive benefit from creating fantasies if they did
not experience such phenomena in the ordinary course of sexual events. Books describing
sexual fantasies in women can be used as a method of assisting women in learning
to fantasize. An example of such a book is Herotica 2.36
In relation to the sexually arousing effects of films on women, one study showed
that the subjective experience of arousal appeared to be greater in women-made films
as compared to those made by men, although the genital response to both was
described as substantial.37
Some clinicians also promote the use of “Kegel’s exercises”.38 Kegel was a urologist
who taught women who were experiencing stress incontinence to strengthen their
pubococcygeus muscle by repeatedly contracting their perivaginal muscles. In the process
of doing this, some women reported an increase in their perception of genital
sensations and in the frequency of orgasm. Hence the notion was developed that such
exercises be used adjunctively in the treatment of orgasmic dysfunction. In nondysfunctional
women (and consistent with Kegel’s original observations), Kegel’s exercises
have shown to increase subjective ratings and physiological measures of arousal.39
However, in women with orgasmic dysfunction, such exercises have not proven to be
helpful with the lifelong and generalized form or the situational form
(the latter despite an increase in pubococcygeal strength).40 Whatever
beneficial effects exist may derive from an increased focus of attention
of the patient on her genitalia.
LoPiccolo and Stock report that of approximately 150 women
treated with directed masturbation, “about 95%” were able to reach
orgasm through masturbation.8 “Around 85%” were also able to come
to orgasm with the direct stimulation of a sexual partner. “About 40%”
of these women were able to also experience orgasms via penile-vaginal
In accordance with the concept that
orgasm with a partner (e.g., with touch
not including intercourse) is a normal
variation in the sex response cycle experienced
by women, most clinicians who
treat people with sexual difficulties
approach this concern by “normalizing,”
and providing information and reassurance
to the patient.
In accordance with the concept that orgasm with a partner (e.g., with touch but not
with the thrusting movements of intercourse) is a normal variation in the sex response
cycle experienced by women, most clinicians who treat people with sexual difficulties
approach this concern by “normalizing,” and providing information and reassurance to
the patient. One aspect of this reassurance is to help the patient place the issue of how
an orgasm occurs in perspective. Doing so might involve clarification of the notion
that, while pleasure is one of the desired “outcomes” of sexual activity and pleasure and
orgasm are connected, if the woman is left feeling inadequate because orgasm does not
occur with a specific sexual practice, this feeling could substantially interfere with her
A 35-year-old married woman was referred because she was anorgasmic. She was
seen alone because she was taking a summer course in a city that was not where
she ordinarily lived. Her family remained at home. In the course of history-taking,
it quickly became apparent that she regularly and easily experienced orgasm with
touch (her own or her husband’s) but not during intercourse, a situation that she
and her husband thought to be abnormal. Information was given to her about the
variability of orgasm experiences in different women, and reading matter on this
subject was suggested. When she returned several weeks later for a second (and
final) visit, she summarized the interval as follows:
1. She talked with her husband on the telephone on the evening after the first
2. She indicated that her own concerns had greatly diminished
3. She reassured her husband about her normality
4. The couple concluded that they did not have any sexual difficulties
Verbal reassurance about the normality of not experiencing orgasm during intercourse
is powerfully assisted by also referring the patient to published information on this
subject. For example, the Hite Report concerning sexuality in women declared that
about two thirds of the 3,000 women who were surveyed reported that although they
were usually orgasmic, they did not have an orgasm when penile-vaginal intercourse
One method used to treat the concern about not experiencing orgasm during intercourse
is to provide information about “the bridge maneuver”41 (p. 87-93). This
approach initially involves the patient (with fingers or vibrator) or her partner bringing
her to orgasm by direct clitoral stimulation, and the partner then entering her vagina
while orgasm is taking place. Subsequently, vaginal entry occurs just before orgasm
which, theoretically, would be provoked by penile stimulation alone.
A 37-year-old woman, married for 12 years, described a concern that she never had
orgasms during intercourse. Her husband accompanied her to the appointment but
remained in the background. In response to questions, he indicated that he was
supportive of what she wanted but at the same time was quite content with their
present sexual experiences.
She was regularly and easily orgasmic alone with masturbation and, as well,
when her husband stimulated her clitoris with his fingers or orally. She was not
reassured when given information indicating that her sexual and orgasmic response
pattern was within the range of normal. However, she did not want to give up her
objective of orgasm during intercourse.
The approach used was to provide information about the “bridge maneuver” to
the patient and her husband, and to see them again in several weeks. During the
follow-up visit, both partners reported the following:
1. Having tried the technique twice without any change
2. Less concern on her part about how she would experience orgasm
3. Both felt better about their relationship, since they talked more about nonsexual
Male partners tend to be more involved than was the case in this story. In addition to
their current partner, women with orgasmic difficulties have often been questioned in
the past about the sexual response of other partners. Male partners often imply that
‘having an orgasm during intercourse is important to my sexual pleasure and so it must
be for you too. If you are not having the same kind of experience as I am, you must
not be enjoying yourself. Something is wrong with this situation’. In addition, there is
an unvoiced (although sometimes voiced) concern by the man that he is doing “something
wrong” and is therefore a “lousy lover.” The man in this situation often seems to
have difficulty accepting his partner’s reassurance. However, the same reassurance
given to the man from a health professional authority seems to be quite powerful. Thus
it is important to see both partners together.
Clarifying the possible etiological role of medications, illness, or substance abuse is
essential if this is not already apparent to the patient. Medications that interfere with
orgasm are outlined in Appendix III. Strategies for managing delayed ejaculation/
orgasm resulting from medication use were reviewed in Chapter 10 (see “Delayed
Ejaculation/Orgasm, Box 10-1, and Table 10-1). These same treatment approaches
apply to men and women.
1. Lifelong and Generalized: for the woman who experiences this syndrome but
who is also sexually uneducated and inexperienced a directed masturbation treatment
program with appropriate reading materials should be implemented. For
the woman who is sexually educated and experienced, the approach is not so
clear. If she is focused on orgasm rather than her feelings of pleasure and does
not respond readily to reassurance about the likely positive outcome, referral to
a sex specialist might be helpful.
2. Lifelong and Situational: most patients respond positively to an approach that
normalizes their experience while at the same time not minimizing their concern.
It may be essential to direct this message to the partner as well. A patient
who does not want to accept this pattern as a normal variant should be referred
to a sex therapist.
3. Acquired and Generalized: when orgasms were a feature of a woman’s sexual
response in the past but cease to be so in the present, a search for some biological
explanation should be made. A physician needs to be involved if the
primary care professional is not an MD. When a medication is found to interfere
with orgasm, the clinician should make use of the information in Box 10-1
and Table 10-1 in Chapter 10. Illnesses and substance abuse should be specifically
treated, since the sexual phenomena are usually symptoms rather than disorders.
Clinicians must always consider the possibility that disrupted sexual
function could be the presenting symptom of a disorder rather than, for example,
the side effect of a medication.
Orgasmic dysfunction is the second most common problem among women in the
general population (24%) but appears as less of a clinical complaint then it did a
decade or two ago. When a concern does surface, it can take one of three forms:
1. Lifelong and generalized (primary): the woman never had an orgasm by any
means (5% to 10% of women)
2. Lifelong and situational: the woman is orgasmic by one means (e.g., masturbation)
but not by other means (e.g., intercourse) (very common)
3. Acquired and generalized: the woman has lost the capacity that she once had to
come to orgasm (infrequent in a healthy population).
History-taking is essential in the investigation of the complaint of orgasmic dysfunction
(physical and laboratory examinations are distinctly less helpful [other than for
educational and reassurance purposes]) in an apparently healthy woman. The lifelong
and generalized form is usually a result of lack of awareness of sexual issues affecting
women and is responsive to educational input and initial experience of orgasm through
masturbation. The concept of the generalized and situational form as a problem requiring
treatment has changed substantially so that today this pattern is considered a “normal”
variant of female orgasmic response. Women with this concern are generally
responsive to reassurance although this often involves the partner as well. The acquired
and generalized form usually results from medication side effects, symptoms of illness,
or direct effects of abused substances. When a side effect of medications is responsible
(see Appendix III), several treatment approaches (see Box 10-1 and Table 10-1 in
Chapter 10) can be employed. Only in the occasional instance does specialized care
seem necessary for any of the three forms described.
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